I haven't been the biggest fan of the food here - blame it on my preference for fresh fruit and vegetables and my year in Italy (once you've gone to da Michele, you will never be the same. I guarantee it.) I came here with an open mind - I knew it would be folly to try to go back to vegetarianism - and an assumption that high quality produce would be readily available. I've been disappointed. Yes, verdulería are a dime a dozen, but the quality is often sub-par. And don't even get me started on the bread. The bland, white bread. It really is a shame.
However, I've been here for four months now, and in that time I've found places where I can get better produce and (believe it or not) some really good bread. I highly recommend Hausbrot - a German style bakery-chain with several locations in the city. I've been to the one right outside the Alto Palermo Shopping and in Jumbo on Avenida Bullrich. I go there once a week to get my loaf of Fermento Natural de Centeno (natural rye) and a couple whole-wheat, veggie-stuffed empanadas. Es muy rico.
Anyway, I've managed to deal. But that doesn't mean that I can't bitch every now and then about the general lack of flavour and spicyness. It's a common complaint among expats, and this article seems to sum up the sentiment.
I've been meaning to explain the chipa/empanada induced coma that I mentioned a couple posts ago, so here goes.
Thanks to a reader's comment on this blog, I found out about cooking courses offered by a woman, Teresita, in her home in Adrogué, a suburb located about 20 km outside of Buenos Aires. After checking out the website - www.try2cook.com - I signed up for the empanadas cooking class. It seemed like a great idea for anyone who 1) loves food and is trying to learn how to cook; 2) wants to learn more about Argentine culture (food being the consummate manifestation of culture) 3) wants to show off to their friends back in the States. I mean impart one's knowledge. So I contacted Teresita, booked a place in the class, and hopped on a train to Adrogué.
I should have prefaced this story with a brief explanation of my obsession with chipá.
Ok, so I am obsessed with chipá. What is chipá, you ask? I'll save you time and summarize the Wikipedia entry (but you should definitely do a google images search of it.) It's a traditional cheese-bread of Paraguay, making it paraguayo. (Sidenote: 'paraguayo' ties with 'uruguayo' for my favourite words en castellano. Altogether now: pah-rah-gwah-sho. And, oo-roo-gwah-sho. If saying that doesn't bring a smile to your face, then nothing will. Well, except maybe some fresh chipá.) It's made with manioc flour, giving it a distinct texture; when made well, it squeaks as you chew it. It sort of reminds me of an asiago cheese bread, but much better. It's not very popular here in Argentina; I've read (yea, I'm that cool and did some research) that in Paraguay there are chiperos - chipa vendors - selling fresh chipa every day on the streets. I've come across it in several confitería in Buenos Aires, but the real stuff (or at least what I think is the real stuff) can be found at the main bus station in Retiro. I'm not normally in the Retiro area, and because the area around the bus station is quite the clusterfuck, I try to avoid it. And so, sadly, I rarely get good chipá. But no worries - you can also find it wherever there is a large Paraguayo population, which tends to be in a lower-class neighbourhoods, such as the area around the Constitución train station. Oh, and would you look at that - I just happened to be taking the train from Constitución to Adrogué. (this in no way encouraged me to go to the empanadas cooking class.)
So I obviously hit up a couple chipá vendors - for purposes of comparison - before taking the train to Adrogué. Being only a short train ride - about half an hour - away, the ticket was cheap, though finding out which train to take was a bit more difficult. I ended up on the wrong train, but, quickly realising my mistake, got off and switched trains. I may or may not have hit up another chipá vendor while waiting for the right train.
I soon made it to Adrogué and headed straight to Teresita's home. The little that I saw of the town seemed nice; the quiet and slow pace were a great respite from the busy-busy-busy of Buenos Aires. Upon meeting Teresita, I was immediately informed of a problem - "no hay agua." Why am I not surprised, I thought. I suppose it was a bit comforting to know that it's not just my shitbox apartment (more on the bitterness later) that suddenly and inexplicably loses running water. I was quickly assured that we could manage without water and off we went.
It's always a treat to go into a real home when you've been living in an apartment for a while, but Teresita's home was particularly warm and inviting. We learned how to make two types of empanadas, one with a beef filling and one with a corn filling (empanada de humita.) First we made the filling, which is normally made the night before left in the fridge overnight. As everyone naturally wants to eat their creations, we just put the filling in the freezer after we made it. After chopping the vegetables and other goodies - peppers, onions, olives, corn, and hard boiled eggs - Teresita explained how to make the filling. While she did this, we all had a glass of white wine - a Torrontés, I believe. Then, we moved onto the dough. Making dough, though it seems labourious, is actually quite easy and fun and definitely worth the extra time it takes. Once we made the dough, we let it rest for a bit and then divided it into little balls. We then rolled the balls with rolling pins (which were actually fashioned out of broomsticks, and were perfectly suited for the task.) We then generously stuffed the empanadas. As Teresita said, there's nothing worse than a half-empty empanada. Agreed. It was a bit difficult how much filling was needed - too little is a disappointment, and too much makes for a sloppy empanada. We were taught the braided technique for closing the empanada, which is actually more difficult than it seems (or maybe I'm just a bit inept.) There were five students, myself included - a couple from the States who was staying at the bed and breakfast attached to the house, and an English/Portuguese mother and daughter. I think we made close to 40 empanadas, some (everyone else's) being better than others (mine.) Teresita glazed the dough with some sort of egg mixture before cooking them - half in the oven, half in the deep fryer. While we waited for them to cook, we relaxed outside in the beautiful garden and enjoyed another glass (or several...) of wine, this time a Malbec (obvio.) Teresita then served us our creations and we indulged in an empanada feast. Teresita sprinkled some sugar on the deep-fried empanadas, a nice touch which one doesn't often see. I think my favourite were the deep-fried beef empanadas. So that, plus several glasses of wine, along with my chipá tasting earlier, was the cause of my coma. And it was totally worth it.
I definitely recommend taking a cooking class with Teresita. She's a knowledgeable and kind host, and it's a great way to see another, more authentic part of Argentina. There are many tourist traps in Buenos Aires (El Caminito comes to mind), so this is perfect for getting outside the bubble and immersing yourself (if only for a couple hours) in the local culture. Plus, who doesn't love empanadas? The class cost $45 US, and was well worth it, in my opinion.
In other news, I'm moving. Or at least I hope so. I've mentioned several times all the little problems that make my current place of residence "interesting" (which, if you couldn't tell, means "it really pisses me off, but what the hell; this place is cheap and I'm young and broke and can put up with it.") The weather has gotten predictably colder - it's winter, mas o menos - and for the past few weeks now the temperature inside my room has been the same as the temperature outside my room. Yes, after living in Buenos Aires I will never take insulation/central heating/any kind of heating for granted. Because no hay nada. Na-da.
My complaints about the lack of heat begs the question: You've been living there for three months...did it really take you that long to realise there was no heat? Well, no. As soon as I moved in I remember thinking to myself, "hhhmm...it could get a bit chilly in here come June." Turns out daily cat-naps in the late-summer sun make you forget such moments of prescience. I suppose my attitude of "fuck it, I'll deal with it later" was bound to bite me in the ass sooner or later.
And as for the "didn't you survive a Montreal winter sans-heat?" question: Yes; during my second year at McGill my roommates and I never turned on the heat in our apartment. The difference? The heat from the bottom two apartments rose to ours. Oh, and I wasn't outside. Sure, -40 degrees is cold, but at least you're inside an insulated building. Though it's only 40 degrees here, I'm already wearing two pairs of pants, a turtleneck, and two sweatshirts. This isn't a matter of drinking some tea and sucking it up, believe me.
But I was even prepared to buy an electric heater and buckle down for winter. And then, one morning, on her way to work, my Argentine roommate told me that she would be increasing rent quite substantially each month because things had become expensive. This arbitrary hike quickly converted my attitude from one of, "bueno, estoy pensando en mudarme" to "basta, me voy, hay que bancarsela." (Mom: that's "well, I'm thinking about moving" and "that's it, I'm outta here, deal with it.") At this point, I'd rather pay more for rent to be comfortable (crazy, right?) And it's not just about the heat - I have no work space (trying to work on a coffee table really kills your back, trust me) and no decent teaching space, either. So I figure I'll spend more money on rent for the rest of my time here, and save money when I'm living at home (ugh, part of me just died writing that.)
Thus the Great Apartment Search, Buenos Aires edition: Part II, has officially begun. Hopefully I'll find a place before I freeze to death (it's a joke, Mom.) The silver lining to this cloud? Having learned the phrasal verbs, "to sweat one's balls off" and "to freeze one's ass off," my students have attained a more authentic manner of speaking.